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Stealth Flies for First Time, Heating Up Capitol Debate : B-2 Facing New Hurdle, Aspin Says

From Times Wire Services

The $500-million B-2 stealth bomber flew for the first time today, soaring above the Southern California desert on a two-hour flight aimed at keeping Congress from scrapping history’s most expensive warplane.

The flight appeared flawless to observers who watched the sinister-looking flying wing take off from secrecy-shrouded Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale shortly after 6:30 a.m. and land later at nearby Edwards.

But the maiden flight did not diminish the B-2’s controversy on Capitol Hill.

“This is a giant leap for Northrop but one small step for the B-2 program,” warned House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.).

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‘Checkbook Hurdle’

“The B-2 has still another hurdle to clear--the checkbook hurdle,” explained Aspin, who has told the Pentagon it will be impossible politically to spend as much as $8 billion a year in the early 1990s that the Administration wants for the plane.

The four-engine bomber, built with composite materials and a shape not easily detectable by radar, circled over the Antelope Valley at three different speeds with two F-16 fighters giving chase through a clear sky.

The B-2, a tailless, 172-foot-long wing with bulges in the middle, finally descended onto a runway and quickly rolled to a stop without a wobble, waited for several minutes and then taxied off into a hangar.

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‘Very Nimble Aircraft’

“We were very pleased with the performance of the aircraft. It was very close to the simulators,” said Bruce J. Hinds, chief test pilot for Northrop Corp.'s B-2 Division, who flew the plane with Air Force Col. Richard Couch.

Couch called the B-2 a “very nimble aircraft” and said it made a “Grade A” landing.

“I had to ask the tower if we were on the ground,” Couch said. “If we appear a little giggly about all of this, it was a lot of fun.”

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The flight was seen as vital for the future of the bomber, which is already 18 months behind schedule. At a budgeted price of $500 million each--the Air Force wants 132 of the planes--it is the most expensive warplane in history.

A key congressional committee voted to withhold further funding until the plane proved itself in the air.

‘Far Too Expensive’

“If that plane doesn’t fly, the debate is over,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said Friday. “It is far too expensive to be a stealth taxi.”

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At the Pentagon, officials released a statement by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney hailing the success of the flight:

“It is good to see that the test program appears to validate the judgments made previously by the Department of Defense and Congress to go forward with the B-2,” Cheney said.

But Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) cautioned: “One flight does not a blank check get. (The Pentagon) obviously thinks they can get a few votes by getting it airborne for a few minutes (before next week’s House debate).”

Schroeder supports an amendment to the defense bill that would stop production of the B-2 after 13 planes until further tests and flights.

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